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The Language of Disability: Top 10 Dos and Don'ts

By Kristine A. Sova

On Thursday, September 22, 2016, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by Christine Bruno, Disability Advocate, and David Harrell, Disability and Program Associate, from Inclusion in the Arts. A portion of the workshop focused on the language of disability -- particularly dos and don'ts -- and is a useful tool for workplace inclusion and diversity initiatives as well as equal employment opportunity (EEO) compliance. Employers, lawyers, and HR professionals: Please consider using these examples in your next workplace training.

DON'T USE wheelchair-bound/confined to. DO USE wheelchair user/ uses a wheelchair.

DON'T USE suffers from/afflicted with/crippled by/victim of. These terms make assumptions about how the disabled person feels about his/her disability. Use "has" and the name of condition (e.g., has cerebral palsy, has paraplegia, etc.).

DON'T USE the disabled/the blind/the deaf. Always use as an adjective rather than a noun - disabled person, blind filmmaker, deaf man or woman.

DON'T USE retarded (e.g., mentally retarded)/retard. USE intellectual disability; cognitive disability; developmental disability (when using these terms, however, it is important to understand the distinction among them).

DON'T USE handicapped (handicap). In general: If you're not writing about sports, don't use it! Use disability, disabled person, person with a disability. Similarly, DON'T USE handicapped parking, restroom, etc. USE accessible parking, restroom, etc.

DON'T USE midget/dwarf. DO USE little person. (Dwarf is acceptable only if the person actually has dwarfism.) Keep in mind: Anyone with dwarfism is a little person, but every little person is not a dwarf.

DON'T USE deaf-mute/deaf and dumb/hearing-impaired. DO USE deaf or hard of hearing.

DON'T USE physically challenged/differently abled. Avoid outdated or saccharine terms and euphemisms. Use disabled as an adjective (e.g., disabled sportscaster) or person-first language (e.g., person with a disability).

DON'T USE overcoming/inspiring/brave/courageous. Avoid patronizing and condescending descriptives - describe the person's accomplishments without value judgment or interpretation.

DON'T USE special/special needs. Do not use when referring to disabled people.

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